World-famous botanic garden needs safety spending worth £40m

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SCOTLAND’S most famous botanic garden needs £40m to save its glasshouses – before panels dislodge and crash to the ground.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RGBE) boasts three sets of glasshouses, with a combined 8,000 sq m of glass.

The panes protect a large collection of rare plants, including a 180-year-old palm tree and the giant Amorphophallus Titanum which smells of rotting flesh.

But a strategic review, published yesterday says that the glasshouses “urgently require attention” because there is a risk to employees, visitors and its collection.

One of the glasshouses at the RBGE
One of the glasshouses at the RBGE

Managers estimate that the cost of restoring, repairing and replacing the glasshouses, some of which are listed buildings, and constructing a new education centre could reach £40m.

They have had to close the glasshouses to visitors and staff 11 times this year during periods of high winds in case glass is dislodged and crashes down.

Simon Milne, regius keeper of the RGBE, said: “We have been very careful to exclude people from the glasshouses at times of high winds.

“The time we have had to do this have been increasing in frequency because of the number of storms there have been.

“We are having to be very cautious because we do not want anyone to be hurt.”

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The giant Amorphophallus Titanum which smells of rotting flesh

The review was carried out by a group of seven scientists appointed by the Scottish government and chaired by Sir Stuart Munro, scientific director of the Scottish Consortium for Rural Research.

Their report praises how the RGBE is run but says that one key issue identified as of “mission critical importance” is the maintenance of the core collection.

This would involve making sure that the ageing glasshouses are either replaced or restored to make them safe and to make them meet modern energy efficiency standards.

Many plants of international conservation significance are kept in the palm house, dating from 1858, the “front range” house with its distinctive metal framework, and the research houses to the rear.

The report says: “RGBE houses a national collection of plants that is of international significance as befits one of Scotland’s world-leading institutions.

“The risk to the living collection through inadequate infrastructure is the single greatest risk for the whole organisation and the likelihood of catastrophic failure and loss of the living collection is significant and growing.

Damage

“Indeed, recent storms caused serious damage to the structure of the research glasshouses and created significant health and safety concerns for the many staff who were required to rescue the collection and begin repairs.”

The review warns that failure to replace poor infrastructure would “severely harm Scotland’s reputation” if the living collection was damaged.

Mr Milne said the scientific institute was holding discussions with the Scottish government about funding but it would have to raise much of the £40m itself.

He added that they will need to increase fundraising through sponsorship, commercial activities and appeals to the public.

A spokeswoman for the botanic garden later clarified that most of the work will be concentrated on the research glasshouse which is normally off-limits to the public. This building will have to be demolished and rebuilt.

Work on the public “Heritage” glass houses will be restricted to maintenance, said the spokeswoman.

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